Monday, September 30, 2019

Finding Lazarus

Finding Lazarus
Luke 16:19-31[1]
  There are many ways in this life for us to forfeit our humanity. We are so complex and vulnerable, and life can threaten us where we least expect it. I would have to say that our comfortable lifestyle encourages a complacency that can lead us to forfeit our humanity. It’s one of the most dangerous temptations of having all the “stuff” we have: it can leave us blind to the people in need and deaf to God’s call to help them. Being able to see a person living in poverty and hunger as a fellow human being is an important part of our humanity. So is being able to hear God’s call to put compassion and mercy into practice
  I think that’s why Jesus told this parable: to shock all who have become blind to the needy and deaf to the call to compassion. In fact, I would say that Jesus told this parable to address the fact that the religious leaders of his day were “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). Their love affair with their own wealth blinded them to the real needs of the people around them. Not only did they love their money, they also “justified” themselves for it (cf. Lk. 16:15). They considered their wealth to be a sign of God’s favor. Unfortunately, the combination of their love of money and their self-justification robbed them of the ability to show compassion to fellow human beings.
  I believe this is the point of Jesus’ parable about a rich man and Lazarus. For those of us who have enough it can be so easy to ignore those who are in need. And when we do so, we lose a part of our humanity. What we have to understand about the rich man is that he is not only rich, he’s very rich. He wears clothing that only kings could afford. He eats all he wants of the finest and richest foods. And what is obvious from the parable is that Lazarus is not only poor, he’s completely destitute. He is so hungry he just wants the scraps from the rich man’s table. And he’s so weak that he can’t even fend off the starving dogs that gather around him!
  In the story, their situations are radically reversed. Both men die, and fate of the rich man, who was very likely a “pillar” of the community and a leader of the local synagogue, is shocking in the extreme. Instead of being rewarded in the afterlife, he finds himself in torment. On the other hand, Lazarus, who would have been despised as a “sinner” getting what he deserved, winds up in paradise, in the “bosom of Abraham.” I’m not sure we could imagine a more radical reversal of fortunes. It is a dramatic illustration of the first becoming last and the last becoming first.
  It seems to me, however, that one of the main points of this parable is the fact that this man who had incredible wealth ignored Lazarus, who suffered terribly right at the very gate to his household. I find myself wondering how many times the rich man ignored Lazarus. It’s hard to say. Did the rich man ever find himself in a position of actually stepping over Lazarus? I would say that’s very likely. Did the rich man ever once actually looked Lazarus in the eyes? I doubt it. The rich man had become so complacent with his wealth and his comfortable life that he could no longer even see Lazarus. And in the process, he lost a very important part of his own humanity: the capacity to show compassion to others. 
  After the dramatic reversal of the two men’s fortunes, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers, to warn them not to make the same mistake he had made. Abraham’s reply is simple and to the point: “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them” (Lk. 16:29). The Scriptures have all the warning they need to learn what it means to put God’s mercy into practice toward others. But the rich man’s response is equally simple and blunt, “No, father Abraham” (Lk. 16:30). The rich man knew that they wouldn’t pay any more attention to Moses and the prophets than he had. And I think this is another of Jesus’ lessons in this parable. This man would have been respected by his community. And yet, in reality, his great wealth made him deaf to the clear and repeated call of the Scriptures to share what we have generously—especially with those who are poor, or hurting, or vulnerable, or in any kind of need.
  We still have Moses and the prophets, but I’m not sure we do any better job hearing them than the rich man or his brothers. We also have Jesus and the apostles, but I think it’s easy for us to ignore them as well. So what do we have, or perhaps better, whom do we have who can teach us to share what we have generously? We have Lazarus. In fact, we have many Lazaruses all around us. But the question we face is whether our humanity is still intact enough that they can help us. In the parable from our Gospel lesson, in spite of the fact that the rich man begged for Abraham to “send Lazarus” to help him, Abraham explained that he could not help. We might say that the rich man already had his chance to learn from Lazarus, and he ignored the lesson. But we still have a chance to learn from the Lazaruses of our world. 
  So how can the poor, the hurting, and those who have been cast out in our world teach us how to share ourselves generously?  They are our prophets and apostles because they teach us that the life that is truly worth living always has been and always will be characterized by compassion and generosity. Although Lazarus could not help the rich man who ignored his plight, I think perhaps he might help us. I think he can point us to the Lazaruses all around us, poor and oppressed and outcast people who represent opportunities for us to share our mercy and compassion. When we take the time to notice them and do something to help them, we have the chance to be converted to a life of sharing with those in need. When we “find Lazarus” in the least and the lost and the left out among us, we have the chance to recovery our own humanity.

[1] © Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/29/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Living Intentionally

Living Intentionally
Luke 16:1-13[1]
There is a lot of talk these days about living “intentionally.” Unfortunately, as is the case with other fads, the sheer amount of “talk” can render a topic like this to be virtually meaningless. It means everything, and it means nothing. But if you sift through all the noise, there is something to living intentionally. As I’ve observed before, we live in a culture that is designed to distract us. From our cars to our meals to our exercise habits to our fun, we seem to want to be constantly distracted. We don’t just “watch” a sporting event, we watch it, while we talk on the phone and comment on social media (and comment on others’ comments!). We seem to have lost the art of simply being in the moment.
I would venture to say that part of this love of distraction is that many of us simply are not “comfortable in our skin.” We’ve never really learned to just be who we are, and to be okay with that. The voice in our head that tells us that, no matter what we do, it’s never enough and it’s certainly never good enough defines our lives. With that kind of message constantly playing in the background of whatever we do, it’s no wonder we prefer the many distractions available to us. Until we can make peace with who we are, we will find it difficult to live intentionally.
Believe it or not, I think that our lesson from Luke’s Gospel for today is about just that: living intentionally. People have always found something to distract them from the somewhat challenging call to love God with all their hearts and love their neighbors sincerely. Jesus addresses the distraction that wealth poses, but that’s simply one of the more powerful distractions that we all face. For those who want to try to dodge the issue, Jesus speaks plainly: “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13). Translated into our terms, I think Jesus was saying that if you choose wealth as your master, it will take such a hold on your heart that you will not even be able to serve God!
Apparently, many of the religious leaders of his day had fallen into that trap. In order to address that problem, Jesus tells a rather confusing parable about the choice between living intentionally and being distracted. What makes this parable so confusing is that on the surface of things, it seems that Jesus is commending the dishonest use of wealth as a means of gaining eternal life! Given not only Jesus’ teaching about money, but the whole biblical witness, it’s clear that Jesus would not have made such bizarre statement. A little background might help us with the confusion. A “steward” was a household slave who was in charge of the master’s estate. He would manage all the affairs related to the operations, the personnel, and the finances. So the “steward” was the one who was entrusted with the master’s wealth.
This particular steward had been caught being dishonest, and it’s clear that the master was going to dismiss him. What the steward did next may seem shocking to us. He called in those who owed debts to the estate, gave them back the original IOU, and had them write out another one with a reduced debt. This might seem like outright theft. But it is likely that in fact the amount by which the steward reduced the debts was actually excessive interest that he had been charging (and probably pocketing). It would seem that in fact he was simply foregoing his dishonest “commission.”[2] 
We might wonder how this would do him any good. Again, some background might help. In that day and time, “debts” of honor were taken very seriously. With this plan, the steward was placing people in his debt by doing them huge favors. And when he came calling to “cash in” his favors, they would dishonor themselves in the eyes of the community if they did not welcome him as a guest in their homes. This explains the strange way the master commended the steward (Lk. 16:8). It seems confusing at first, but the master simply recognized the fact that the steward had come up with a very shrewd plan to avoid poverty when he was forced to leave his position.
It’s at this point that Jesus begins his confusing comments. He seems to commend the dishonest steward for being shrewder than Jesus’ own followers. He goes on to say, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (Lk. 16:9). Does Jesus want us to be dishonest and self-serving like the steward? I don’t believe so. While it sounds like Jesus was advising us to use money to gain some kind of eternal benefit, I don’t think that’s the point. I think Jesus wants us to be as shrewd about our discipleship as the steward was about his future. Jesus wants his disciples to live intentionally for the sake of God’s kingdom, and that includes how we use our wealth. [3]
It seems that the more prosperous we grow as a society, the more ways there are for us to distract ourselves from the calling to love God with all our hearts and to love others genuinely. I think that was one of the main reasons why Jesus consistently warned his disciples about the dangers of wealth. Of course, there are other ways we can distract ourselves from the challenge of living for God wholeheartedly. But I would say that wealth and prosperity underlie most of them. As St. Paul could say, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). If we truly want to take seriously Jesus’ call to follow him by living intentionally for God’s kingdom, we will have to put money and all it can buy in its place.

[1] © 2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/22/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2]Cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Gospel According to Luke X–XXIV, 1101; Darrell Bock, Luke 9:51–24:53, 1330, 1341.
[3] Cf. Jennifer E. Copeland, “Shrewd Investment,” The Christian Century (Sept. 7, 2004): 21, where she observes that the steward “used all the means at his disposal to adapt to his new reality. We should be no less shrewd in adapting to God's reality.”

Tuesday, September 17, 2019


Luke 15:1-10[1]
We are a people with plenty of boundaries. We find all kinds of ways of drawing lines that let in only those who look like us, who talk like us, who live like us, and excluding anyone who is “different” in any way. Whether it’s the fences we build, or the neighborhoods we choose to live in, or the lines we draw to keep “undesirable” children out of our schools, we find a way to keep company only with those who are like us. Even on the internet, observers note that we tend to filter out messages from those who represent a way of thinking we may find offensive. Instead, we only want to hear from those who endorse the same ideas we do.
Although the Christian faith is intended to be radically inclusive, the way we as a people tend to practice our faith can fall into the same kind of exclusion. Bill Moyers, a journalist who was known for his PBS documentaries in the last Century, used to say that religion has a healing side, but it also has a killing side. Now, we’re not the kind of people to commit a terrorist act in the name of God, but there are other ways to carry out the “killing side” of religion. One of those is by rejecting the people we consider to be “less than,” or “undesirable,” or even “sinful”—the very people Jesus welcomed in the name of a loving God. We may not actually “kill” in the name of God, but we have other weapons that can rob a person of life just as effectively.
It might come as a surprise to hear these comments in connection with the parables of rejoicing over finding that which was lost in our Gospel lesson for today. The parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son are probably some of our favorites. They remind us that God never stops seeking us out until he finds us and brings us home. They reassure us that even when we wander astray, God never gives up on us. And when that which was lost is found the proper way to celebrate it is to throw a party!
I’m not sure we fully appreciate this side of Jesus. We can take ourselves and our faith so seriously, that we can miss the fact that Jesus was known among the “religious people” of his day as “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34). Apparently, Jesus’ ability to celebrate the joy that comes from knowing God’s love and seeing that love transform those who were “lost” earned him a “reputation” among the good, upstanding people of the day. They were so busy obsessing about their religious “obligations” that they missed the whole point of it all: living in the joy of God’s unconditional love, and sharing that love with others—all others!
That was the reason why Jesus told these parables in the first place. Again, Luke clues us into that with the way he introduces the chapter. He describes the setting this way: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1-2). Now, there are some things we need to understand about this. First, “tax collectors and sinners” was something of shorthand in that context. It was a phrase that included everyone who was considered “undesirable,” whether they were actually immoral or just consigned to the category of human “trash” by the good, upstanding people.[2]
It’s easy for us to overlook this dimension to the parables because we tend to identify with Jesus’ point of view when we read the Bible. I think that’s a natural response to Scripture: we would like to think that we’re the kind of people who hear and obey. Therefore, we assume that we’re “on God’s side.” But of course, it’s that assumption that allows us to fall into the trap of the “killing side of religion” by rejecting others and setting up boundaries to keep them separated from us.
The irony in this situation is the fact that those who were consigned to the category of human “trash” were the very ones who responded to Jesus and his message of God’s all-inclusive kingdom![3] In the Gospels they are the examples for us to follow regarding how to respond to Jesus. By contrast the “religious” people kept their distance. Or if they did “stoop” to associate with Jesus, it was only to confirm their assumption that he was misguided at best and dangerous at worst. Despite their narrowness, Jesus continued to reach out to the “religious” people, inviting them to join in the celebration of new life. The parables in this chapter leave it open as to whether they would accept his invitation, or continue to cling to relative safety of their grumbling.
We face the same choice today. We can choose to assume that we are justified in writing off those we exclude as “trash.” If so, we will have forgotten that though we have all gone astray, we want God to be merciful to us, but we’re asking him to withhold that mercy from those we reject![4] Instead of assuming that posture of judging others, we can admit that Jesus has something to say in these parables that we desperately need to hear as much as anyone![5] If we have the ability to hear him, perhaps then we can leave our grumbling behind, and join with him and “all heaven” in rejoicing when anyone from any walk of life who was lost is transformed by God’s love.

[1] © 2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/15/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, 1073.
[3] Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 570.
[4] Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:298: he says that we want God to be merciful to us by giving us more than we deserve, but we want those we view as “undesirable” to get no more than they deserve.
[5] Fred Craddock, Luke, 184.

Monday, September 09, 2019

How Much Will It Cost?

How Much Will It Cost?
Luke 14:25-33[1]
We have a tendency to hear what we want to hear, at least to some extent. There are some things that challenge us deeply, and we don’t much like that. They are hard for us to truly hear. One of the most memorable phrases from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech is, “I have a dream that one day … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” But there are other parts to the speech. Dr. King also said that in the Declaration of Independence, the “architects of our republic” wrote a “promissory note” that all races “would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And he chided America for writing people of color a “bad check” instead! That's hard for most of us to hear.
I’m afraid we have applied our “selective hearing” to Jesus’ words as well. There are some of Jesus’ teachings that we cherish. Sayings like, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Or “Let the little children come to me” (Matt. 19:14). Or “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). These are words that reassure us, that comfort us, that encourage us. But there are other teachings of Jesus that we (purposefully I think) ignore. Like the one about tearing out your right eye or cutting off your right hand in order to avoid sin!
Our lesson for today is probably one of the most ignored teachings of Jesus. This chapter contains some of the most deeply challenging demands Jesus makes on those who would follow him as disciples. Here Jesus says to the crowds, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Lk. 14:26)! I would say that has always cut deeply against the grain for those who heard this. In fact, even Matthew’s Gospel softens the harshness of this saying a bit: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:37).
Of course, in this passage Jesus also says that those who do not bear the burden of the cross and who do not give up all their possessions cannot follow him as disciples. Those are deeply challenging demands as well. But I think the part about hating your parents, your spouse and your children, your brothers and sisters, and even your own life is probably the most challenging to us. It’s positively offensive. Family ties are some of the most important ones to us. Why would Jesus try to sever family ties that the human race has cherished through millennia?
I think part of the answer may be found, as is often the case in Luke’s Gospel, in the introduction to the passage: “Now large crowds were traveling with him” (Lk. 14:25). This isn’t the only place in the Gospels where Jesus speaks rather harshly to the crowds that followed him. On one occasion he scolded them for following him simply because they had their fill of bread (Jn 6:26). On another, he chided them for the fact that “this generation is an evil generation” because they came to him seeking some miraculous sign upon which they could rest their faith (Lk. 11:29). I think Jesus knew that many in the crowds that followed him had their own ideas about who Jesus was and what he had come to bring them. He rather bluntly rebuked that shallow spiritual “thrill-seeking”!
I think, however, that these “hard sayings” Jesus spoke were not just for the spiritual “sightseers” who flocked to him. They were also meant for his disciples. Jesus warned them that his commitment to God’s kingdom and God’s justice meant that he was going to be cruelly executed on a cross. And he also warned them that they would share that fate. Elsewhere he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). Interestingly, the word for “bearing” the cross is a different one here. It is a word that implies bearing a burden that is heavy, and continuing to bear that burden over time. I think Jesus was pressing his own disciples as to whether they were “willing to stay with [him] all the way.” [2]
Another part of solving this problem can be found in the parables Jesus tells to explain the point of what he is trying to say. In both of them, the point of the parable is that it’s a normal part of life to calculate the cost before launching a venture. And that seems to be the point of Jesus’ demand that in order to be his disciple one must “hate” one’s family, continually bear up under the burden of the cross, and give away all possessions. More than once, Jesus made it clear to his disciples that they must count the cost of following him. Following Jesus would be the way they would truly find their lives, but it would also cost them all that they held dear.
I don’t believe that Jesus wants any of us to literally hate our families, any more than he literally demanded us to go get ourselves executed or to give up everything we own. I think the point of this passage is that the commitment to following Jesus is one that takes precedence over every other commitment in life. But it also stands as a warning: those who choose to follow a Savior who was cruelly executed must recognize that decision will come with a cost. And yet at the same time, the promise is that, however much it will cost us to follow Jesus, only by losing our lives for his sake will we truly find our lives.

[1][1] ©Alan Brehm 2019. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/8/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Fred Craddock, Luke, 181.


Luke 12:49-56[1]
It’s not hard to see that we are a nation divided. This is not a new phenomenon. The “culture war” that’s been going on in this country has been recognized for almost 30 years. Its origins go back before that to the times of social upheaval we went through in the Sixties and Seventies. As opinions about various social issues changed for some, those who hold onto what they consider to be more conservative values pushed back strenuously. We’ve seen this “war” played out primarily on the field of politics, but most families are affected by it as well. We all know there are certain topics you just don’t talk about at family dinners!
This intense division has also affected most Christian denominations. Recent decades have seen divisions in Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Catholic, and Methodist groups. Those churches that have chosen not to follow the majority view have left their denominations. Unfortunately, this kind of division hurts all churches. Those that leave a denomination over disagreements like these typically experience a decline in attendance. Other churches that stay within their denominations have to try to manage the tension within the congregation. The fact of the matter is, like most families, most congregations are not all on the same page regarding the changes that have taken place in our society.
In our lesson from Luke’s Gospel for today, Jesus makes a surprising announcement. He says that he has come not to bring peace but division! If this sounds confusing to you, you’re in good company. How can the one whom the hosts of heaven heralded at his birth with the declaration of peace (Luke 2:14) say he has come to bring division? After sending out his followers with the task of carrying peace to the towns and villages, did Jesus change his mind and decide to scrap that plan? The message of peace is woven into the biblical promises of salvation through the Messiah, from the prophets to Jesus to the Apostles.
How then could Jesus say he has not come to bring peace, but division? I think part of the answer has to do with understanding the meaning of the word peace. In the Bible, peace is the wholeness that comes from knowing God genuinely and living the life God intended for us. Peace is what happens when God’s reign and God’s justice prevail. It includes all that God is working toward in this world. The “peace” of the angels’ song is God’s salvation that brings reconciliation with God and humanity. This kind of peace is clearly at the heart of Jesus’ message and ministry.
I think that the kind of peace Jesus was rejecting is the “peace” that comes from avoiding conflict by going along with things as they are. He was renouncing the approach that seeks to preserve the status quo no matter what the cost. The peace that Jesus criticized was the approach of keeping up appearances and preserving a “business as usual” attitude toward life. Unfortunately, these are values that many of us would endorse. Change is stressful. Maintaining stability is much easier. But when we maintain the status quo at the expense of the people around us, the price for our comfort is too high!
On the other hand, the kind of peace that brings us true wholeness is the peace that happens when God’s reign and God’s justice prevail. The truth behind our Gospel lesson for today is that Jesus does come to bring peace, but it is a kind of peace that comes with a cost. The peace that Jesus brings will only come from righting the wrongs of injustice, especially the injustice that benefits the privileged few. It is a kind of peace that will only come from exposing the untruth that perpetuates the brokenness of our world.  It is a peace that brings with it the strife and division that God’s justice and God’s truth provoke among those who are comfortable with “business as usual.”[2]
When anyone has the nerve to look at the way things are and say, “this isn’t right,” it has an unavoidable effect: it divides people. Those who benefit from the status quo will fight tooth and nail to oppose anyone who tries to change things. That’s why Jesus said he had come to bring division. He did not shy away from exposing the unjust systems of his day.  He told parables that pointed out how the religious leaders had enriched themselves at the expense of the people, in direct violation of the Torah they claimed to uphold. He pointedly confronted them for abandoning the commandments of God when it was convenient, and yet insisting on keeping the letter of the Law when it suited them. The division Jesus brought was one that came from directly confronting the “powers that be” of his day for abandoning God’s standards of justice.[3] 
The Gospels make it clear that Jesus came to break down the systems of injustice and untruth that exploit and oppress people, especially the most vulnerable. His intention was not to destroy, but to clear the way for God’s kingdom, for God’s justice, and for God’s peace that brings wholeness and life. If we would follow Jesus in this way of peace, it will mean that we have to repent. We have to repent of the selfishness that seeks our own welfare at the expense of others. We have to repent of the choices we make that reinforce a “business as usual” attitude and ignores the least and the lost and the left out. And when we do repent and follow Jesus in the way of justice he lived and taught, we must expect that it will provoke the division he warned about.

[1] © 2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/18/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. J. Moltmann, Crucified God, 39, where he speaks of the necessity of “the painful demonstration of truth in the midst of untruth.”
[3] Cf. Luz, Matthew, 112, where he says, “The message of ultimate peace … and of the love of God for the underprivileged has a political dimension and evokes the resistance of all those who defend power and privileges.”


Isaiah 1:10-20[1]
For many of us, “Charades” refers to a parlor game that we used to play back in the day. You had to get your “team” to guess a word or phrase based solely on your efforts to act out the idea. It was harmless and fun; at times it could be hilarious. But that rather innocent use of the word “charade” is very different from its true meaning. To put on a charade is to pretend to be something you’re not. It’s a matter of “play-acting” or “faking it” in order to disguise your true identity and intentions. A charade is oftentimes meant to deceive someone. It is a matter of dishonesty at worst, and at the least it is a matter of hypocrisy. The parlor game really has little to do with the charades we play in life.
And, make no mistake about it, we all play charades in life. None of us is as upstanding, as good, or as honest as we’d like to think we are. And we’re certainly not as good as we’d like others to think we are. As much as we’d like to believe we are “what you see is what you get” kind of people, there are parts of our true identity that we conceal from others. As fallen and flawed people, whether we want to admit it or not, we’ve all either done things we shouldn’t have, or we’ve not done things we should have. This applies as much to our practice of faith as it does to any other area of our lives. Perhaps even more so, especially when we come to church.
This is the gist of the message the prophet Isaiah had for the people of Judah. In fact, I would say this was the gist of the message all the prophets delivered to the Jewish people. The people had pledged to be true to God, to love and serve him above all else, and to follow his ways. Those ways were embodied above all in the Torah, the teaching of God. That teaching could be summarized in two great commands: to love God with everything you are and to love others genuinely. But the Jewish people failed to actually fulfill their commitment to live out the faith that they professed.
Like Isaiah, the prophets essentially “called” the people out for the charade that their practice of faith had become. We tend to think of a “prophet” as someone who predicts the future, especially warning of gloom and doom. But the reality was that the prophets were preachers. And their message was the same: the people had pledged to follow God’s ways, they had promised to love God and love others, but their lives betrayed the fact that they really had no intention of making good on that promise. Instead, they thought they could somehow fool God by engaging in worship that was hollow and superficial—simply “going through the motions,” or putting on a charade.
That is the message of our lesson for today: the people of Judah thought they could show up to “worship” God and then they could go out and live their lives however they pleased. But Isaiah says in the name of the Lord that this is nothing more than a “trampling” of his courts (Isa. 1:12)! Thinking they could simply show up for a few religious ceremonies and call it good was something that was “futile,” an “abomination,” and “evil” in God’s eyes (Isa. 1:13). All of those words in the Hebrew Bible are also associated with the worship of false gods. In a way, Isaiah was saying to the people that they came to the temple under the pretense of worshiping God, but the way they lived their lives betrayed the fact that it was not God they were worshiping, but rather the idols of their own making!
We might wonder what it was that made their worship so offensive in God’s sight. I think our lesson makes it clear that the “evil” that they were perpetrating was a failure to follow God’s standards of justice. Rather than caring for the most vulnerable in their society, they were only concerned about getting what they wanted out of life. And they didn’t care whom they trampled in the process. And they didn’t care that it was a direct violation of God’s Torah, God’s commands. Throughout the Bible, caring for the immigrants, the disabled, the widows, and the orphans in society was the benchmark for God’s justice.[2]
Because the people failed to practice even the most basic aspects of God’s justice, the prophets like Isaiah warned them that they would suffer the consequences. This was not simply an arbitrary punishment. When any society ignores justice, they are headed for collapse. But Jesus went further than that. He said that how we treat the most vulnerable people in our world is the basis upon which we all will be judged! He said it this way: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Matt. 25:35-36). And to make sure we don’t miss the point, he added, “just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:45).
Throughout the Bible, the gift of God’s love and grace and mercy to us calls forth a response: that we love God with all our hearts and that we love others sincerely. But the simple truth is that it is always easier to “honor God with our lips, while our hearts are far from him,” as Isaiah could say elsewhere (Isa. 29:13). The kind of worship that God seeks from us involves devoting our whole hearts to God. And one of the ways we do that is by putting God’s justice into practice in how we treat the most vulnerable people in our world. Anything less amounts to a “charade.” And the only way to change that is to “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isa. 1:16-17). That won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen without making an effort to learn to align our hearts with God’s will so deeply that practicing God’s ways becomes like second nature to us. That’s what it takes to live authentically instead of putting on a “charade.”

[1] © Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/11/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] See Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:10, 33; 23:22; 24:22; Numbers 15:29; Deuteronomy 1:16; 24:17, 19, 21; 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7, 29; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5; James 1:27.

Truly Rich

“Truly Rich”
Luke 12:13-21[1]
I think it’s fair to say that we as a people are obsessed with our possessions. We continually occupy ourselves with getting more—a better computer, a nicer TV, a newer phone, just to mention a few of the “hotter” items on the market. Experts recognize that this consumption of consumer goods is the engine that drives our economy. And this isn’t just about “the one who finishes with the most toys wins.” It’s ingrained into much of our decision-making. In a society where we seek to secure our future by our own efforts, we are constantly calculating ways of ensuring that our account balances are heading upward. And for us, that just makes good sense. It’s hard not to think that our lives consist in “the abundance of possessions.”
Part of this is simply a matter of living in a market economy. But there are many aspects of the way we live in this economy that betray the power of wealth over us. For example, many of us play the lottery. We see it as essentially “free money.” But we fail to recognize the bigger picture: “jackpots” are filled with money from people who buy lottery tickets. And many of them cannot afford to be spending their money that way. So those who “win” get rich at the expense of others. The fact that we rarely stop to consider this bigger picture betrays the way our wealth can influence us to neglect the welfare of others.
In part, that’s one of the reasons that Jesus criticized the rich farmer in our parable from Luke’s Gospel for today. Again, we might think his actions were prudent. Who wouldn’t store up a bumper crop in order to wait to sell for a better price in a lean year? We would see that as simply “good business sense.” But Jesus rather bluntly calls it “greed.” In our world, planning for the future is essential, because we are all aware that there will come a day when we can no longer provide for ourselves. But seeking to secure our own future this way implies that we believe our lives consist in “the abundance of possessions.”
That’s what the farmer in this parable believed. He says to himself, “Self, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19). This might sound like a good thing. Who among us doesn’t want to be able to retire comfortably?[2] Who among us doesn’t worry at least a little about having “ample goods” to provide for our needs? Like the farmer in the parable, it would seem that many of us believe we can secure our own future through our wealth. And so we occupy ourselves, as he did, with storing up “ample goods” so that we can “relax, eat, drink, and be merry.”
In the parable, there is a background that plays a role here, but it may not be obvious. As in many of Jesus’ parables, the excessive wealth of some meant that others had to do without basic necessities. And one of the flaws in this farmer’s thinking is that he’s thinking all about himself, not about anybody else.[3] Although he has a bumper crop, he’s obviously wealthy enough that he doesn’t even have to sell his crop to cover his expenses. More than that, given his extensive landholdings, hoarding his crop will very likely adversely affect the food supply of the many others who are his neighbors. But he’s obviously not even thinking about the welfare of these “neighbors.”
The real problem with this outlook on life is that it neglects the dangers of wealth that Jesus so often warns against. Seeking an “abundance of possessions” has a way of turning into hoarding everything we can get our hands on. Finding our security in our wealth can lead us to ignore the source of our true security. It can motivate us to “store up treasures for ourselves” but to ignore what it means to be “rich toward God.” In other settings, Jesus explains that true riches are those that cannot wear out or disappear. Being truly rich comes from knowing God’s unconditional love for us, and sharing that love with those around us.
Although some of us may disagree, in the Bible our faith affects our attitude towards our possessions. When we encounter God’s love in Jesus Christ, it’s supposed to change the way we live our lives. And Jesus makes it abundantly clear throughout the Gospels that this extends to what we do with our possessions. As he pointed out so clearly, we cannot “serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13). I think at least a part of what he was trying to say to us is that our wealth has a way of mastering us if we’re not wise in the way we use it. That’s why St. Paul warns us that we must “put to death … greed (which is idolatry)” (Col. 3:5). Wealth has a way of going from a simple means of exchange to a golden calf that we serve in place of God.
I think most of us would hear Jesus’ warning, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed” (Luke 12:15) and think that applies to someone else, someone who is “really” rich. But in reality, it addresses us all with a choice as to which master we will serve. Choosing to serve “the abundance of our possessions” will rob us of the opportunity to be “truly rich.” When we become so consumed by our wealth that we ignore others, we are living in direct contradiction to the will of God. Being “truly rich” comes only as we find our lives in the new life that God offers us all.  It is a life of learning that becoming content with God’s love turns whatever we have into everything we could ever need. It is a life of loving God in return and therefore serving those around us in love—especially by sharing what we have with them.  Jesus calls this “being rich toward God” (Lk 12:21), or truly rich.

[1] ©2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/4/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX: 257: “the rich man’s vision of the future sounds uncomfortably like one that most of us have for our retirement years. Are we really planning prudently? What gives our life meaning now, and what will give it meaning then?”
[3] Cf. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 490-91.